American beer is “in”

Interesting story in the BBC on how American beer, once derided in the world’s cultures that take beer seriously,  has suddenly become fashionable.  America’s craft breweries have spawned international fans and imitators, though also new controversies among the purists.

From BBC News – US craft beer: How it inspired British brewers.

Once widely mocked, US beer is now popular globally with hipsters and connoisseurs alike. Why is the world buying in to the American brewing revolution?

Not so very long ago, American beer was a joke. And a weak one at that.

To international tastebuds, it meant bottled lagers like Budweiser, Miller or Coors – commonly regarded by self-respecting drinkers as bland, corporate and lacking in credibility.

An explosion in independently-run microbreweries producing lovingly-created, strong, pungent, flavour-rich ales has transformed the reputation of the product.

But it is not only traditional aficionados of ale who have been won over by this American revolution.

Somehow, beer from the United States has become not just widely respected, but achingly fashionable.

Visit a chrome-surfaced bar in London, Stockholm or Amsterdam and you’re likely to find Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Odell’s porter on tap.

All are craft beers – a catch-all term defined by the American Brewers Association as the product of “small, independent and traditional” producers.

“There’s a hipster cachet to it,” says Melissa Cole, ale expert and author of Let Me Tell You About Beer. “Craft beer is seen as sexy right now, there’s no doubt about it.”

Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn American bar culture is being exported around the world

According to the Brewers Association, exports of US craft beer rose by 72% in 2012, with Canada, the UK and Sweden making up the largest international markets.

Today the US boasts more than 2,000 breweries – up from barely 50 in 1980.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a nation whose beer was recently widely written off by consumers around the world as insufferably naff.

“Five or six years ago, if you were abroad and said you were an American brewer people would look the other way – they thought it was all yellow, fizzy water like Budweiser, Miller and Coors,” says Jim Caruso, CEO of Flying Dog, an award-winning microbrewery in Frederick, Maryland.

Known for their potent, hoppy flavours and high alcohol percentages, and often comprising unusual ingredients like chilli and chocolate, American craft beers have inspired a host of imitators, especially in the UK.

British firms like Darkstar, Meantime and Marble have all manufactured drinks influenced more by California and Colorado than Cornwall or Coventry.

These do not always qualify as “real ales” – a term popularised by British beer lovers when they launched the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) a generation ago in rebellion against the prevalence of mass-produced carbonated beers.

According to Camra, beer should be left to ferment “live” in casks.

Craft beer, by contrast, is often produced in kegs – a technique which makes traditionalists shudder.

It’s a reaction that enthusiasts for the new wave of American-inspired beers are happy to provoke. Indeed, they are often keen to dissociate themselves from Camra’s beard-and-cardigan image.

This is well and good.  Certainly, craft beers have raised the quality of American brews.  But I have to agree with the purists in decrying the contamination of beer with chocolate, chilis, fruits, pumpkin, peanut butter, bacon, and even weirder additives.  Am I wrong?

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • tODD

    Veith said:

    I have to agree with the purists in decrying the contamination of beer with chocolate, chilis, fruits, pumpkin, peanut butter, bacon, and even weirder additives.

    It’s because you’re a Lutheran. And I’ll just beat all the other Lutherans to the punch by saying: Reinheitsgebot.

    Of course, plenty of beers from Ye Olde Europe also violate the Reinheitsgebot, even (or especially) those that are really old. Cf. Fraoch Heather Ale (a modern take on an ancient beer made with heather instead of hops). Or the definitely unusual Finnish sahti (flavored with juniper twigs instead of hops). These beers are every bit as unusual as the ones Americans are creating, but they have the distinction of being old, so they get a pass.

    Some of the unusual additives in the new beers make for pleasant, and subtle flavors. And then there’s madness like the collusion between Oregon locals Rogue Beers and Voodoo Doughnut — the Bacon Maple Ale and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Ale. Sorry, but I will likely never taste those, as they sound like someone doing something because they can, not because they should.

  • tODD

    I do love me some British Real Ales, though. Arguably more than the average Brit does — or at least the average Scot.

    We visited Scotland in 2006, and kind of had to go out of our way to find the Real Ale places. In the smaller towns, they drank mass-produced swill not much better than the US variety. I mean, what in the name of CAMRA was that Guinness Extra Cold nonsense on tap in Inverness? I ask you!

  • Gene Veith

    Yes! The German beer purity law, requiring that beer be made only of barley, hops, and water. Surely, those of us who believe in freedom, limited government, and free enterprise economics should make an exception that allows for that wise law.

  • Ryan

    Seriously good beer is being brewed, better than I’ve been making at home. If you want to add stuff, mess around, it’s called innovation and while it is not exclisive to the US it is one of our traits and sometimes leads to more seriously good beer. I mean some genius in the past had to add hops right, who knows what may be stumbled upon.

  • SKPeterson

    Hops are a flower, so adding juniper berries follows the basic recipe. I myself am not a fan of the fruit-flavored lambics, but I understand something of their appeal. I must say that I was mildly appalled that one of smaller brewers of good beer, Leinenkugel’s, decided to promote their Summer Shandy which has a lemonade slant to it. Yecch. I also wish I could find more Spoetzl products than Shiner Bock or the mixed-6. The other stuff is really good – I wish I could get even 6′s of the different varieties. Yuengling is a pretty darn good, somewhere-between-mass-produced-swill-and-small-craft, beer without the pretentious pricing associated with much of the craft beer industry.

    But, yes, Reinheitsgebot is a good default standard for brewing and type of beer or ale. This is most certainly true.

  • Julian

    It’s true that not only are American beers being imported to Europe, but now countries with an already respectable beer culture are trying to brew beer the American way. BrewDog , mentioned in the article, is a Scottish company that regularly strives to make the most alcoholic beers in the world (now on the order of a very strong whiskey). They could have only been inspired by the “bigger is better” mentality that has taken over the American craft beer scene. But I have tasted some beers that nicely synthesize American hops with a traditional style. Houblon Chouffe and Schneider’s Hopfen Weisse (made in collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery) come to mind. And the latter even complies with the Reinheitsgebot!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    The craft beer explosion in the US has certainly been a good thing. It happens here too I but arguably, with our lower population density etc., it often just remains local. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

    As to all the experimentation – some is good, but in beer it is so much better to brew with the added ingedient – say real herbs, and not flavourants in the form of “essence” or extracts.

    Back to local brews – if ever any of you pass this way, we have a very nice microbrewery here in town – Paddockwood. Make sure to have some – my favourite is Loki, an Imperial/Double IPA.

  • Joe

    I’m have a personal problem with weird beer ingredients – but as a small gov’t guy I say let the market figure it out. That is what I love about the craft beer world. It is an example of the beauty of the market at work. The reason craft brewers exploded into the market post 1980 was because the beer market was greatly deregulated in 1979 (thank you Jimmy Carter – yeah, deregulation used to be part of the Democratic playbook. Charter and Ted Kennedy are also the folks who deregulated the airlines).

  • Kirk

    I go back and forth on purity laws, but I’m generally against them. I think beer can feature additives, so long as its within reason. Ancient monastic beers, like lambics and Flemish Reds, typically ferment with wild yeast in old wine barrels. Bacterial contaminants come hand in hand with this method and contribute to the unique, funky and sour flavors of the beers. Yet these styles are typically accepted as some of the best and most complex beers in the world. Plus their old. Way older than the Reinheitsgebot. I also enjoy beers that are aged in old whiskey barrels, which impart flavors from the oak and the remnant whisky soaked into the walls of the barrels. Definitely not pure, but incredibly delicious.

    Some good impure beers to try:
    Allagash Curieux (barrel aged tripel)
    Founders Breakfast Stout (stout brewed with Kona beans)
    Anything from Bourbon county
    Russian River Consecration (barrel aged sour)

    On the other hand, I don’t love it when breweries just boil some random additive in with the beer and think that they’ve concocted some wildly creative brew. Dogfishhead Brewery, for example, is a terrible offender in this regard. Any time the flavor of the beer is overpowered by the flavor of the additives, a terrible mistake has been made.

  • Julian

    @SKP, try a more traditional lambic, like a Gueuze or Kriek. These drink more like dry sparking wines, and are my favorite styles by far. Beware though, if you get anything by Lindemans, it’s usually sweetened (except the Cuvee Rene). Look up brewers like Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin or Oud Beersel for some more traditional offerings.

    Right now, a good lambic is one thing Americans can’t do.

  • Kirk

    *They’re not their. When will we be allowed to edit our posts?

  • Gene Veith

    Maybe sooner than you think. See the news about the new commenting system that I’ll talk about tomorrow.

  • Tom Hering

    An editing option? Huzzah!!

  • Kirk

    @Julian

    “Right now, a good lambic is one thing Americans can’t do.”

    FALSE! False! It’s just not widely produced. First of all, Lambics and other sours take a while. Most small breweries can afford to have product aging for years. Second, it’s an experienced beer drinker’s style. Your average joe won’t head over to the neighborhood bar and order a Flander’s red after work.

    However, if you can get yourself to certain breweries, you can buy some great Lambics on site. Allagash Brewery in Maine is always doing some crazy Gueze stuff and I got their Coolship Resurgam, which was fantastic. Lost Abbey and Russian River in Cali also do some great work with sours, their beers are just hard to come by. So, poorly done? No. Underdone? Yes.

  • Tom Hering

    Also on the new commenting system: will we be required to enter a code in order to comment? It would keep at least some of the spammers out.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Personally, I generally do not like additives in beer. Though I do like a Belgian White that is traditionally flavored with coriander and other spices making it a wonderful summer drink.
    However, as long as Germans continue to mix beer with Coca Cola, Lemonade, Orange juice or soda and so on, well then they have no room to talk about some southwest brewery experimenting with chilli powder.

  • SKPeterson

    Kirk and Julian – I’m talking more about the faux-lambics like Leinies Summer Shandy and some of the Drop Top type stuff – the put some lemon or orange in it! type of stuff. I really, really like Belgian ales, having had a deep affinity for Chimay back in my college days. It’s nice that we are now getting more varieties here in the States, but in East Tennessee the pickings are often slim. Besides, my tastes run more toward IPA’s, stouts and porters.

    I will point out another thing with the craft brew industry – it is bifurcated into two or three categories: “national” brands like Yuengling, Shiner, Samuel Adams or New Belgium, “regional” brands like St. Arnold’s or Deschutes which get some national exposure, and then the “locals” that are found all over with distribution usually confined to one particular brewery site and community, or with limited distribution within a state or a few states. Right now, for me, the hotbed of craft beer production is over in Asheville and western North Carolina. Here’s one of my favorites, Heinzelmannchen’s: http://www.yourgnometownbrewery.com/beers.htm.

  • Kirk

    I saw a commercial for that Summer Shandy stuff. Made me rage.

  • Julian

    Kirk,

    I’ve had Russian River’s stuff. While delicious in its own right, it is no substitute for a true lambic. I have not tasted anything from Allagash’s coolship, but until I hear reports of double blind taste tests, I remain unconvinced that what they are attempting resembles lambic.

    Key words in my above post were “good” and “lambics”. In America there are bad lambics and good sours that are not lambics.

  • Joe

    The problem with Linnies Summer Shandy is that it takes what is supposed to be a mixed drink made with one part beer and one part lemonade (or other citrus drink) and turns it into some kind of pre-made franken beer.

    It is not intended to be a fruit infused lambic.

    My wife likes it well enough but go to a bar with an actual bar tender and have them make you a real shandy. Much better experience.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

    Two words: Founder’s Breakfast Stout
    I think I may have had too much…

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    All I can say is “here, here and pass me a beer”

    I felt a lot like the Europeans, my opinions of beer were completely centered around the carbonated urine that was passed off by the corporate brewers. Then I was introduced to microbrews and I was converted. I love me some craft beer. A personal favorite is Schafly Double Chocolate Porter.

  • Wattmi

    Being new to the world of drinking beer I do not believe I can really comment. Except to say that I like a good porter or a red ale. My dad however, he likes the really hoppy beers. He usually drinks Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and sometimes gets Torpedo (I think by the same company). Anyway, he surprised me the other day by suggesting a chocolate stoat. It was a really good stoat, though it may have been the chocolate that won me over. Dad seemed to enjoy it though and he’s picky. I think it’s fun to try something different and new. I think it gives a new appreciation to the familiar. It’s nice to go out to a five star restaurant, but when mom cooks I’m there in a heartbeat.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Out Texas way (my home) there are several great craft brewers – just a few
    St. Arnold’s – Houston (Texas’ oldest) – their signature Amber is fantastic
    Real Ale – Blanco (about 45 minutes from San Antonio) – Devil’s Backbone (I know, I know) – heaven in a bottle
    Rahr – Fort Worth – they have a seasonal Scottish style ale – Iron Thistle, that is wonderful
    512 – Austin – Pecan Porter (no Pecans or Pecan flavoring, that’s just the name – it’s a traditional Porter)
    Lakewood Brewing Co. – Dallas – Temptress, an Imperial Milk Stout

    I could keep going, but you get the idea.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    Keep in mind that the Reinheitsgebot does allow some wheat beers, among them those infused with fruit like raspberry. Not my favorite, but quite nice.

    I would propose a modern Reinheitsgebot where the use of flavoring agents (even chocolate) is not proscribed, but the use of “cheating agents” like corn syrup is. That said, I’m a big fan of porters, stouts, and IPAs. It’s sad that Hopslam comes only once a year!

    And Leinie’s Summer Shandy? Ugh. Not quite as bad as Bugweiser, but….

  • Kirk

    @Bike

    I’m not sure where you live, but if you like Hopslam, try some Sculpin IPA. It’s hard to find but worth the effort.

    And I’m not sure how far and wide DC Brau (one of DC’s local breweries) distributed, but them make a great imperial IPA called On the Wings of Armageddon.

  • tODD

    I’ve never heard of (much less had) this pre-fab “Summer Shandy”, though I certainly get the appeal of a homemade shandy (preferably with good, homemade lemonade and a nice lager or kolsch) as a mildly alcoholic thirst quencher. In Germany, they’re called a Radler (German for “cyclist”, because, you know, it’s a sports drink).

    The Reinheitsgebot isn’t still in effect, by the way (having been been replaced by the Provisional German Beer Law, which is less restrictive in most ways). The Reinheitsgebot also wasn’t written when they were aware of yeast, so it doesn’t include them, even though they’re obviously important. It’s a good rule of thumb for brewing, as SK notes (@5), but good brewers should be able to break it if they know what they’re doing.

    But no, Bubba (@25), the Reinheitsgebot didn’t allow wheat beers, much less fruit beers. Read here for more, including the fact that the Reinheitsgebot was actually more a bread protection act (reserving wheat and rye solely for bread, leaving the not-as-good-for-baking barley for beer), and that the law killed off a lot of interesting beer varieties that used to exist, including spiced beers (much like the fancy new ones Americans are cranking out).

  • helen

    Steve @ 24
    Devil’s Backbone (I know, I know) – heaven in a bottle

    Curious to be told what you mean here with (I know…)
    I remember Devil’s Backbone as a narrow winding ridge with a narrower road on top, which may/may not take you to Blanco; I’ve forgotten that.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Helen @ 28
    That’s exactly what the beer is named after. It’s a very popular run for cyclists (and the owner of Real Ale is an avid amateur cyclist).

  • Steve Billingsley

    The (I know, I know) was just a lame attempt at noting the irony of praising a beer with a devilish name on a blog that is quite Christian in outlook.

  • Dan

    My favorite beer is Allagash White.

  • SKPeterson

    Todd – Do you get Mac and Jack’s in Portland? That was one of the Friday seminar faves in Pullman.

  • tODD

    SK (@32), yeah — though I’ve only ever had the African Amber, and that at one of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants. I honestly didn’t know they were local(ish) until just now.

  • Joe

    All this discussion reminds me of what I think may have been Miller’s best single commercial of all time.

    Do you remember the Miller Genuine Draft commercial that was simply a collection of black and white scenes alternating between industrial shots of factories and brewers and blue collar-ish looking folks drinking beer in large groups. The add was punctuated at the end with block letters that read: “It’s Time for a Good Old Macrobrew.”

    That was the first beer ad I saw that ever resonated with me. It sent the clear message that real, hard working men drink normal beer. Prissy little girly men run around town looking for goofy beer.

  • Joe

    I can’t find a clip of the commercial but according to the interwebs it came out in 1997

  • Heather

    Love some of the chocolate porters and oatmeal stouts out now! Give them a try!

  • Nils

    Kirk, don’t be hating on my Dogfish Head! Though not Rheinheitsgebot compliant, I’m quite a fan of their Ancient Ales line. Midas Touch, Etrusca, and Theobroma are all very, very good, and are fun from an experimental archaeological perspective.

  • tODD

    Joe (@34), I’m clearly not the target market for such marketing, but … I don’t get it. Sort of.

    real, hard working men drink normal beer. Prissy little girly men run around town looking for goofy beer.

    Translation: you don’t care what you drink. You certainly don’t care what it tastes like. You want cheap alcohol, but not something that’s stigmatized like MD 20/20. Here it is.

    The thing that strikes me as funny about all this posturing is the vestigial marketing around these brands. I mean, here in Portland, Oregon (home to not a small chunk of microbreweries), there was a similar reaction to “fancy beer”, with hipsters of a certain vein swilling (and I mean swilling) Pabst Blue Ribbon.

    And what I mean by “vestigial” is that, well, these brands were once viewed as fancy, after a sort. They called it “blue ribbon”, after all, suggesting that it was the good stuff. And MGD, of course, farcically claims to have something to do with draft beers, even though it’s in a bottle. And while PBR’s titular ribbon seems to be historically dubious, MGD actually did win a gold in the 1999 World Beer Cup for the “American-style Premium Lager” category. It also got a silver at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival. So it’s kind of fancy, in its own right. To say nothing of its sister brew — you know, “the champagne of beers”. Talk about hoity-toity!

    Whatever. It’s well established that most people enjoy things that are banal, and that the more unusual something gets, the more “elite” it is (or is it that the more “elite” something gets, the more unusual it must be?). I mean, American “cheese” is popular. And really dull. Anything aged or mature is less popular. So it is with beers, too. Anything high in alcohol, bitterness, flavor, etc. will be considered fancy or “goofy”. Though, honestly, it probably has more to do with the fact that such things cost money, making the beers more expensive. Most people can’t afford expensive.

    But come on.

  • http://www.caryschwarz.com saddler

    When are they going to come out with a good gluten free micro brew for us namby pamby types that get chewed up with the heavy barley stuff?

  • Andrew Kern

    Free people making beer! Awesome. Now let’s get after education and health care in the same spirit!!

  • Charles Cherry

    Five Words: Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout!
    http://beeradvocate.com/beer/profile/113/86189
    This lovely concoction is simply wonderful, but only on special occasions (for me, anyway).
    It isn’t American, but I guess it was inspired by the American crafters, according to your story.

  • http://adf.ly/MpbB6 Nigel Mines

    You can certainly see your skills within the work you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart. “What power has law where only money rules.” by Gaius Petronius.

  • chase

    As I read those last two lines, I heard my dad, in the early 90s, saying “rap is not music and it will not last”; I heard my step-dad saying in 1980 that the shuttle was never going work as planned and was not meant to fly; and I remebered hearing about my grandfather, in the 1950′s, waiting years to by a tv because he thought they were a fad.

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